Monday, December 09, 2013

Emergency Order 29: Where’s the consistency?

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When we investigate accidents and injuries, when we analyze failures of any sort on any railroad, we are searching for a root cause—that determining factor, or factors, that drive the accident from a potential condition to a manifest event.

We do this so that our solutions can be equally powerful in reducing or suppressing the possibility of reoccurrence, of re-manifestation.

The Federal Railroad Administration knows this, and when it issues an Emergency Order, we should expect, we need, that Emergency Order to address that root cause. Emergency Order 29, issued Dec. 6, 2013, does not address that root cause.

The directives entailed in EO 29 are based on assumptions that have not been shown to be either the root or contributing cause to the Metro-North derailment in the Bronx at Spuyten Duyvil. Those assumptions are that safe train operations are enhanced when multiple people are placed in the operating cab of the locomotive.

Clearly, this is not the case. The standard, “default,” mode of operation for passenger and commuter rail trains everywhere in the United States is single-person cab operation and control. The number of incidents, accidents, and failures per train for this type of service compares most favorably to that rate for freight train operations where almost all trains have multiple people in the cab.

Indeed, if FRA thinks single-person cab operation and control presents elevated risk, then it should immediately extend its Emergency Order to all rail operations. It has not. And it will not. There is no evidence to support any such action being imposed on the industry. And, in reality, there is no evidence to support any such action being imposed on Metro-North.

While EO 29 uses its 14 pages to detail the other incidents taking place on Metro-North that FRA claims support the urgency and necessity of the order, none of the causes, or possible causes, root or contributing, primary or secondary, are addressed in the order, or by the directives with which the railroad must comply.

In this regard, it must be stated clearly to FRA that including those incidents in EO 29 does nothing to clarify the problems that Metro-North has encountered, including the derailment at Spuyten Duyvil. In fact, such “lumping together” of incidents and applying an emergency remediation to one can confuse the investigation into the causes of the other incidents.

I should state here that I have no sympathy for the management at Metro-North in its struggle with these incidents. If Metro-North’s successes were no accident, and I can verify that they were not, then its failures are no accident. OK, I’ve said that.

I should also state that I have my own opinions about a possible “unifying theme” to the Metro-North incidents, but that theme is hardly addressed by EO 29.

The presumption that adding people will enhance safe train operations is factually refuted by the performance of all U.S. railroads over the past 30 years. Continuous improvements in safe train operations have been coincident with the reduction in employees and the application of technologies that centralize and concentrate control of the operation.

Railroads expect, and rightly so, when dealing with the regulator of industry practices and procedures, that the regulatory body will take actions and issue directives on a consistent basis. EO 29 imposes a “2 for 20” standard on Metro-North, requiring two people in the cab when and where there is a required speed reduction of 20 mph or more. This “2 for 20” is itself an interim measure as the order directs Metro-North to modify its automatic train control system to enforce not only the safe separation of trains, but the “20-mph-plus” speed reductions. Of course, since no enforcement has to be installed at “less than 20 mph” locations, and since no enforcement is required of the maximum authorized speed for any section of the railroad, any locomotive engineer can overspeed his or her way to disaster in the unprotected areas, directly repeating the performance of train 8808 at Spuyten Duyvil.

But let’s get back to consistency. How far back? Ten years back, eight years back, because in 2003 the Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad (Metra) experienced a severe overspeed derailment of train 519 on its Rock Island/Joliet District at CP 48th Street. In this incident, the locomotive engineer, operating alone in the locomotive cab, failed to observe the two signals governing the train’s approach to and movement over a crossover restricted to 10 mph. The train, operating at more than 65 mph, derailed, no surprise. More than 40 people were injured, but there were no fatalities.

The National Transportation Safety Board conducted a thorough investigation and issued its recommendations. FRA did not issue an Emergency Order, and imposed no requirement upon Metra to comply with NTSB’s recommendations.

Two years later, in 2005, Metra experienced another more severe derailment at the very same location. This time, the derailment involved train 504, operating into LaSalle Street Station. Again, the train was operating with the locomotive engineer alone in the controlling cab, this time with the locomotive pushing the push-pull consist. Again, the engineer failed to observe the signals governing movement over the 10 mph crossover. Again the train derailed, at 69 mph, and this time 117 were injured, and 2 were killed.

And again, NTSB investigated and made recommendations. As a matter of fact, before completing and reporting its investigation, NTSB issued an “urgent recommendation” to the agency asking it to “install an automatic train control system with cab signals and train control enforcement over the entire Joliet Sub District until a Positive Train Control system is installed.”

FRA, however, issued no Emergency Order.

Metra responded to NTSB’s urgent request as follows:

Metra responded that such an interim measure would cost nearly $125 million and take at least nine years to accomplish and proposed an alternative. Instead, Metra is moving forward on the development and installation of an Electronic Train Management System (ETMS), which would control the train if an engineer failed to properly respond to a restricting signal. Metra is finalizing a contract with Wabtec to install ETMS on the Rock Island District. Phase I of the system will automatically enforce all permanent speed restrictions such as crossover moves or physical constraints such as curves. The funding for the Phase I work is in place and includes 12 miles that will be initially equipped. It will later be expanded to the remaining Rock Island District in Phase II after testing and FRA approval. ETMS cutover for Phase I is expected in October 2007 for the test period. Metra has had preliminary meetings with the FRA to discuss the ETMS project. Metra anticipates that material delivery will begin in the first quarter of 2007. The balance of the material should be delivered in 2007 with installation, testing, and FRA approval extending into 2008. (NTSB Railroad Accident Brief, Accident DCA 05-MR-013, page 9).

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Especially since ETMS is the basic platform for the PTC systems that the major railroads have decided to install.

And has that installation occurred? Apparently not, as no mention of the existence of an ETMS system is made in Metra’s Positive Train Control Implementation Plan, filed and approved by the FRA in 2010. That plan is required to include a description of the train control systems currently utilized by the railroad over its territories.

According to its submission, Metra’s Rock Island Distict, Main Line to Joliet, utilizes bi-directional signaling with CTC rules. There is no automatic enforcement.

So in 2005, Metra answered the NTSB’s urgent recommendation stating that compliance would take nine years and cost $125 million, and proposed installing ETMS. And now ... today? It’s almost 2014, ETMS has not been installed in the interim eight years, and there is still no protection (although the interlocking that was CP 48th Street has been moved, and I’ll bet a higher-speed-rated crossover is part of that interlocking).

Now, this is not a case of complaining about “unequal” treatment. Nobody is “picking on” Metro-North. FRA, however, has not acted with either consistency or real effectiveness in regards to the Metro-North derailment.

David Schanoes

David Schanoes is Principal of Ten90 Solutions LLC, a consulting firm he established upon retiring from MTA Metro-North Railroad in 2013. David began his railroad career in 1972 with the Chicago & North Western, as a brakeman in Chicago. He came to New York 1977, working for Conrail’s New Jersey Division. David joined Metro-North in 1985. He has spent his entire career in the operating division, working his way up from brakeman to conductor, block operator, dispatcher, supervisor of train operations, trainmaster, superintendent, and deputy chief of field operations. “Better railroading is ten percent planning plus ninety percent execution,” he says. “It’s simple math. Yet, we also know, or should know, that technology is no substitute for supervision, and supervision that doesn’t utilize technology isn’t going to do the job. That's not so simple.”